In 1845 this New Yorker—and not Abner Doubleday—invented the game. Then he headed West, taking with him a ball and a missionary's zeal.
Along the route (opposite) he spread the word and wherever he stopped the sport still lives, but in ways he might have found surprising.
On a pleasant and sunny morning in the spring of 1845, six years after Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball in Elihu Phinney's Cooperstown cow pasture (or anywhere else), a black-whiskered 25-year-old New Yorker named Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. walked off the pleasantly shaded sidewalks of Fourth Avenue into a meadow on Murray Hill between Third Avenue and the railroad cut. There he joined a group of young men lightheartedly playing a game of ball remembered from their childhood—a game, like most children's games, whose antecedents were mysterious and whose rules were subject to constant change and much dispute.
This particular day Cartwright had a carefully drafted diagram in his hand. He beckoned his fellows to gather around and described his plan, which was a distillation of many vague ideas that had been proposed in the previous several years. The plan was simple. Instead of the casual arrangement of bases that had prevailed in the past, the ballplayers would be stationed at first, second and third base around a perfect square, with 90 feet between the bases. Instead of an indefinite number of players in the outfield, there would be only three, at left field, center field and right field. Because most balls were hit between second and third, Cartwright put one player at an entirely new place he called shortstop. There were to be flat bases instead of random posts or rocks that happened to be found where the game was played. There could be only nine men on a side. They would bat in a regular order, announced before the game started. To determine when the hitting and fielding sides would exchange places, Cartwright proposed a rule that he called "three hands out, all out." In cricket, popular in New York in those days, a side continued to bat until the whole team was out.
The game that Cartwright and his friends tried out on Murray Hill was phenomenally successful from the start. The standardized shape and dimensions of the playing field meant that ball clubs could meet each other on equal terms wherever they played. Throwing to bases to make outs—instead of throwing the ball and trying to hit a wildly dodging base runner—tightened and rationalized the game remarkably; it immediately ceased to be a mere children's amusement. The rapid succession of innings rescued the game from the dawdling pace of cricket, a game that, being of English origin, was losing its appeal among Americans, who had indicated they would fight the English rather than give up their claim to all territory south of the 54th parallel in the Northwest. But the best evidence of Cartwright's inventive genius was his placing the men at their positions on the diamond (which have remained almost exactly the same ever since) and his setting the distance between bases at 90 feet. He was exactly, uncannily right. The result was a succession of close plays at first base. Five feet less would have given the base runners an enormous advantage. Five feet more would have allowed the infielders too much time to scoop up a grounder and get the ball to the first baseman. But at 90 feet plays at first came to be decided by a step.
Cartwright's innovation meant the beginning of lightning-fast team play, the development of the art of the shortstop and first basemen and the stricter policing of games by umpires. The latter became suddenly important because of the closeness of plays, but their effect was to bring order into the contests in all respects.
There had been many other games involving bases and balls before 1845 (some were even called baseball). A crudely defined game known as town ball, derived from the ancient English sport of rounders, had attained some popularity in New York and New England (the New England version, with bases arranged in a U pattern and the batter's position entirely separate, was called the Massachusetts game). But all of these primitive exercises were static and aimless, and impossible to codify. Only after Cartwright's revolutionary innovations did the game ignite general excitement. Alexander Cartwright had invented baseball—in the same sense that the Wright brothers (and not Leonardo da Vinci) had invented the airplane, and Thomas A. Edison (and not Benjamin Franklin) had invented the electric light.
But who was Alexander Cartwright? You can read every work on baseball ever published and glean only a few sentences, most of them inaccurate, about this founding father. He is variously described in standard reference books (if he is mentioned at all) as an engineer, a surveyor, a draftsman, a New York City fireman. His father was a maritime surveyor, he was a volunteer fireman and some of his best friends sold fire insurance, but his trade, originally, was banking.
Alexander Cartwright was a big man. He stood 6'2" and weighed 210 pounds. He had dark hair, dark eyes and was considered an excellent athlete. By 1845 he had been married for three years to Eliza Ann Van Wie of Albany, and he was prospering. He lived in a house on Eighth Street just off Fifth Avenue. He earned a good living as a teller in the Union Bank on Wall Street. The cashier there, and his superior officer, was Daniel Ebbets, an ancestor of Charles Hercules Ebbets, who, half a century later, became the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and laid out Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Like Ebbets, most of Cartwright's friends were either in banking or insurance on Wall Street and they were all sportsmen.
So delighted by Alick's new rules were the Murray Hill sandlotters that by September of 1845 a group of Cartwright's social peers—and a very few who were not—eagerly accepted his proposal that they establish a club of baseball players, to be called the Knickerbockers. Their idea was that a baseball club should be an association of gentlemen amateurs, much like the Marylebone Club that had made cricket the national game of England. Those Knickerbockers of 1845, the first organized baseball club, eventually played the first recorded match game with another team, the New York Club, on June 19, 1846.